- Spinoza and Scripture:A Colloquium Introduction
Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, calls Spinoza "the noblest and the most lovable of the great philosophers."1 To my mind, he is also the most maddening . . . but in a good way. You read Spinoza, you think you know him, and then you read him again and realize how much you simply did not get. The scholarly humiliation is compounded each time one picks up the notoriously difficult Ethics, but it also happens with the deceptively accessible Theological-Political Treatise [Tractatus theologico-politicus, or TTP].2 Spinoza's writings get more difficult each time one reads them.
The origin of this colloquium lies in a combination of perplexity, coincidence, and collaboration. I have long been puzzled by a number of related, apparently incongruous passages in the TTP. On the one hand, Spinoza in the TTP is clearly committed to, and argues at length for, an anti-rationalist approach to the interpretation of the Bible. The touchstone for understanding Scripture is not reason and philosophy, or what is "true"—whereby any passage that, when interpreted literally, is inconsistent with what is known via philosophy to be true must be read figuratively [End Page 621] or metaphorically—but Scripture itself. The truth of a text is one thing; the meaning intended by its author is an entirely different thing. In reading Scripture, just like reading any work of human literature, what we are after is the latter. Just because the Bible says p, it does not follow that p is true. Thus, Spinoza insists, what is solely relevant in understanding Scripture is the literary text and its historical, linguistic, and biographical contexts. The meaning of any biblical passage is to be sought through sound philological principles, as well as a knowledge of its author(s), familiarity with the language(s) in which it was originally composed, and other "Scriptural" factors.
I was, therefore, struck by certain passages in the TTP that, on the face of it, seem explicitly to go against Spinoza's considered theory of biblical hermeneutic and imply, instead, just the kind of Maimonidean rationalist hermeneutic to which he is so strenuously opposed. I checked in with some colleagues who have devoted a lot of attention to understanding the TTP, and either they had not noticed the incongruity of these passages or they did not give them much mind. The secondary literature on Spinoza was just as silent or dismissive. This only spurred me to try to figure out what was going on here.
Around the time that I was writing up my thoughts on this topic, Carlos Fraenkel delivered a paper to a meeting of the Midwest Seminar for the History of Early Modern Philosophy (in the fall of 2011, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), in which he happened to discuss exactly the same passages, although, as you will see, he offered a very different account of their place in the TTP. In the course of the ensuing discussion, it became clear we had the makings of a very interesting debate on a central issue within an important philosophical text—a debate that had bearing on how to understand Spinoza's larger project in the TTP. I thus suggested to Carlos that we find a way to take our disagreement to a wider audience, if only for the purpose of gaining more input on the problem at hand. The editors of the Journal of the History of Ideas readily agreed to this idea, while wisely suggesting that we also seek out a third opinion to round out the discussion and perhaps try to adjudicate between us. Thus, Warren Zev Harvey was enlisted to join the fray.
My thanks to the editors of this journal for allowing us to air our differences in public. Hopefully, this exchange will stimulate further discussion on what seems to me to remain a hermeneutical impasse in Spinoza's own oeuvre. [End Page 622]